Inspired by Michael Holquist’s challenge to the MLA to dialogue about the CCSI, what it means for us, and our relationship to secondary education, this is a space for discussion of standards, assessment, and our role in this process.
13 June 2013 at 11:04 am #1649
Next June 45 of our 50 states will unite to introduce a shared program that will govern k-12 education in those states. For the first time in our history, instead of the more than 13000 independent school districts now shaping instruction across the country, we will have a set of national norms determining educational practice in the areas of Language Arts and Mathematics. This revolutionary change in American education came about with little discussion in the K-12 community, and even less in the colleges and universities who will be accepting future products of this new system. Nevertheless, the train has left the station, and next year students, teachers—and very soon, professors will experience the effects of this revolution.
At this point, the best any of us can do, it seems to me, is to work to improve the system as it exists. For those of us in MLA, a useful way to accomplish this is to get our professional organization to make recommendations that—were we to make them individually—might go unheard.
The one concern of the Core planners and administrators where we might have the most suasion is in the area of text selection for the Language Arts Common Core. While there is an argument to be made about the Core planners’ emphasis on « informational » as opposed to « fictional » works, more fundamental is the value placed in both on the key worth of ‘complexity’.
The Core Initiative at every stage stresses a student’s ability to master complexity as a goal. Complexity, of course, is hard to define. The Core Standards are compelled to simplify what is meant by complexity, since a key assumption they make is that all goals should be quantifiable. Appendix A of the curriculum for English struggles mightily with this issue, complete with three colored triangular diagrams. Most obviously, differences have been necessarily elided between the various kinds of complexity represented by different genres, from newspaper editorials to legal briefs. Literary works present special problems for anyone seeking to quantify complexity. How do you quantify the different shades of complexity in a Kafka parable as opposed to the complexity of a late Henry James novel?
I note with sadness, but only in passing, the complete neglect of foreign languages and translation in the Core curricula. This is another front, and a critical one, but let us concentrate our forces for the moment on narrative.
So—complexity. What might be a way we could capture the complexity of the term itself, so that it could be used to guide reading practices in K-12 schoolrooms? For openers, of the various ways in which a text can be complex, I’d suggest that narrative complexity is the royal road to other ways in which a text engages our interest and reflection. Specific suggestions for prose readings might be a progression from fairy tales (comparing Disney versions with those of the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen), through detective stories, Chekhov (early humorous sketches to The Steppe), to von Kleist, leading up to Kafka and Virginia Woolf.Each of us could imagine a reading list oriented around surprising plots. The point would be to initiate a lifelong dialog with a world that is full of surprising twists and turns, requiring analysis of the unexpected. Exploding narrative expectations is an ancient and proven way cultures have taught their young to think about what’s happening to them.
This is not the place to go into a deep analysis of why narrative is a particularly effective way to explore complexity, but at the present moment our students more than ever need to be taught the wisdom of Mozart’s definition of music: its what is between the notes. What Mozart wished to emphasize was the primacy of event over mere pattern. When we listen to music, we hear a sequence of now moments, when we distinguish the sweep of the melody as it moves from prior to present moment in the score, even as it opens prodromal hints of future notes perceived in now moments yet to come. It is the living moment of connection, making relational discoveries, that is at the heart of learning.
The experience of now understood in this way—as something conscious of, but not exhausted by—patterns outside the now, has never been more significant than in the historical moment when Common core will be taking over our educational system. For CC is all based on pattern recognition, not living events. It focuses on stochastic algorithms, not human happenings.
I send this overly long and tendentious comment to members of this discussion group in the hope it will perhaps spark further suggestions of how we might intelligently institutionalize complexity. We need to provide tools for the MLA if it is going to do the work needed to improve CC—and our own futures as teachers.3 July 2013 at 4:49 pm #1687
This is a fascinating post and I hope it opens a lively discussion of the kind of brief document the MLA might create to make a statement about what we consider a “complex reading practice.” David Laurence mentioned to me some time ago that teachers of literature could contribute more to the Common Core debates at the “implementation” stage if we had such a document. To this end, I want to propose that we consider the teaching of complex reading not only under the rubric of narrative that Michael Holquist has eloquently described above but also under a rubric of “rhetoric” that would encompass both prose and poetry and would allow us to push back against the dichotomy between “fictional” and “informational” texts that is written into the Common Core Standards for Language Arts.
A brief and statistically insignificant survey of colleagues who teach introductory courses in English literature suggests that many of us start with discussions of the concept of the “word” and the “sentence” (or “independent clause”) to begin to give students a richer metalanguage for discussing how syntax creates meaning (and requires interpretation) than many of them have received in their high school courses. Students who found grammar drills boring in 7th grade (if the curriculum dealt with grammar at all) are in my experience ready and in many cases eager–especially if English is not their native tongue–to discuss parts of speech and the philosophical complexities of defining “words” and sentence types (I go back to Aristotle’s very interesting distinction between a “period”–which is a sentence that doubles back on itself–and a “running sentence,” which is what later schema defined as “paratactic.”) Many of us also return to the issue of figurative language that our students have encountered in high school–but usually in a way that doesn’t shake their faith that there is a “literal” way of speaking and writing beneath or behind figurative language (which is conceptualized as an ornament or as a “detour” from the straight road of communication; both of these metaphors occur in ancient treatises on syntax and rhetoric and they remain powerful today). J. Hillis Miller’s recent book Reading for Our Time: Adam Bede and Middlemarch Revisited, makes a bracing case for the the view that “The only alternative to one metaphor is another metaphor. . . [T]here is no thinking or doing without them.” Barbara Johnson’s essay on “Metaphor, Metonymy and Voice in [Zora Neale Hurston’s] Their Eyes Were Watching God” (A World of Difference) is enduringly funny and written in a way that my freshmen can follow and indeed question as they rethink phrases like “The White House,” “Watergate,” and many other tropes that can be recognized–and discussed–once our students have some names and (often interestingly divergent) definitions on the table. Some of my California students who despised Milton’s poetry and his flaunting of his classical education were nonetheless intrigued when they began learning the names of rhetorical tropes that they could see Milton using in prose and poetry. “Hyperbaton” proved to be one of the most conceptually fruitful of the tropes my students discussed because they could find it defined by Wikipedia as occurring when “words within a sentence change place from their natural order” (as in “Him the Almighty hurled headlong flaming,” which describes how Satan was moved from his “natural order” in heaven); but the students could also see from reading a few paragraphs from Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria (also readily available in translation online, via the invaluable Tufts University Perseus site for Greek and Roman materials), that the issue of “natural” word order is complex for anyone in a multilingual culture or anyone interested in the differences between speech and writing; Quintilian ends up subverting the very idea that the figure deviates from a preexisting “natural” word order by explaining hyperbaton as a “construction” in which words–like “unhewn stones”–are “moved from one place to another so as to join [them] where they fit best” (9.4.27).
It’s hardly original to suggest that college and high school teachers could collaborate on a document on “Complex Reading” that would include new strategies for teaching syntax and tropes (including syntactic tropes such as chiasmus and hyperbaton which are now often neglected in both college and high school literature classes); but syntax and tropes, if they are taught not as sets of rules or terms to be memorized but rather as sites of ongoing debate to which students and teachers today can contribute, are arguably valuable topics for the MLA document I’m imagining. Do others have other ideas for what might go into such a document? I envision it stressing the value of “slow” reading that fosters surprising encounters with textual temporalities and with words, clauses, and plot patterns that point the mind “outside the now,” as Michael arrestingly puts it.12 July 2013 at 12:24 am #1701
I hope that anyone who’s reading this thread will take a look at what the CC Standards actually say about how to measure textual “complexity” in qualitative and quantitative terms. There is so far no room for defining complexity in terms of point(s) of view, non-linear narrative, or (among many other things we care about) irony. The writers of the Standards acknowledge that there is need for further elaboration of the concept of complexity (I quote the relevant portion below from Appendix A , on “Reading”). In Appendix B, there are sample texts for all grades but the Standards writers make no statement about how the chosen texts actually illustrate “complexity.”
Length of sentences and difficulty of diction are among the criteria mentioned for quantitative measurement; surely we can contribute something to this discussion at the “implementation” stage. The link for the Standards is http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy and I urge you to read the three Appendices (C gives examples of student writing, none so far as i can see illustrating a critical analysis of a literary text by an 11th or 12th grade student on the way to “career” or “college” (the two goals are treated as if they were the same).
I’m sure many of you know more than I do about the debates behind the Standards Document; when I read it, I could only dearly wish that MLA teachers could have had more of a say in how these standards were conceptualized. But we now have a chance to weigh in before implementation; our views might be especially useful if we could suggest some complex literary texts with discussions of why they are “complex” and how one could teach such texts to public school students (I suggest that we focus on the lists of exemplary texts for grades 10 and above). We might discuss “complexity” of syntax, trope, plot, and allusions (or paratexts), to start with. There is one mention of intertexuality in the current document’s definition of complexity.
I quote one part of the Standards Document Appendix A below, for those who haven’t yet read it.
All best, Margie Ferguson
Common Core Standards for English Language Arts (etc.), selection from Appendix A, on “Reading”
Key considerations in Implementing Text Complexity
Texts and Measurement Tools
The tools for measuring text complexity are at once useful and imperfect.
Each of the qualitative and quantitative tools described above has its limitations, and none is completely accurate. The development of new and improved text complexity tools should follow the release of the Standards as quickly as possible. In the meantime, the Standards recommend that multiple quantitative measures be used whenever possible and that their results be confirmedor overruled by a qualitative analysis of the text in question. Certain measures are less valid or inappropriate for certain kinds of texts. Current quantitative measures are suitable for prose and dramatic texts. Until such time as quantitative tools for capturing poetry’s difficulty are developed, determining whether a poem is appropriately complex for a given grade or grade band will necessarily be a matter of a qualitative assessment meshed with reader-task considerations. Furthermore, texts for kindergarten and grade 1 may not be appropriate for quantitative analysis, as they often contain difficult-to-assess features designed to aid earlyreaders in acquiring written language. The Standards’ poetry and K–1 text exemplars were placed into grade bands by expert teachers drawing on classroom experience.
Many current quantitative measures underestimate the challenge posed by complex narrative fiction. Quantitative measures of text complexity, particularly those that rely exclusively or in large part on word- and sentence-level factors, tend to assign sophisticated works of literature excessively low scores. For example, as illustrated in example 2 below, some widely used quantitative measures, including the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test and the Lexile Frame-work for Reading, rate the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Grapes of Wrath as appropriate for grades 2–3. This counter-intuitive result emerges because works such as Grapes often express complex ideas in relatively commonplace language (familiar words and simple syntax), especially in the form of dialogue that mimics everyday speech. Until widely available quantitative tools can better account for factors recognized as making such texts challenging, including multiple levels of meaning and mature themes, preference should likely be given to qualitative measures of text complexity when evaluating narrative fiction intended for students in grade 6 and above.Measures of text complexity must be aligned with college and career readiness expectations for all students.
Qualitative scales of text complexity should be anchored at one end by descriptions of texts representative of those required in typical first-year credit-bearing college courses and in workforce training programs. Similarly, quantitative measures should identify the college- and career-ready reading level as one endpoint of the scale. MetaMetrics, for example, has realigned its Lexile ranges to match the Standards’ text complexity grade bands and has adjusted upward its trajectory of reading comprehension development through the grades to indicate that all students should be reading at the college and career readiness level by no later than the end of high school.
1 October 2013 at 10:05 pm #2011
This is such an interesting discussion; thank you for getting it started. Are there any sessions at #MLA14 that people interested in the topic might like to attend?18 March 2014 at 2:56 pm #3309
Participants in this discussion of text complexity may be interested in a research report, Using Multiple Sources of Information in Establishing Text Complexity, by Elfrieda H. Hiebert of TextProject, Inc. University of California, Santa Cruz.
The TextProject also has a Web page devoted to the topic of text complexity in the context of the Common Core State Standards. A number of reports, including the one referenced above, are listed in the Resources section of the Web page.23 March 2014 at 9:07 pm #3324
Thank you, David, for the link to Elfrieda H. Hiebert’s research report and for the Text Project Web page link too.22 August 2014 at 10:07 pm #5399
Professor J. Hillis Miller sent me the comment for posting on this thread; it’s a response to the comments by Mike Holquist and me on teaching “complexity” in a work of literature. Since “complexity” is stressed but not very precisely defined in the CCSS English Language Arts document, we are hoping to prepare a statement from the MLA on what this phenomenon is, beyond the quantifiable things the CCSS framers had in mind (diction; certain aspects of syntax). The CCSSS authors do say that the concept of complexity needs further articulation, so we’d like to take them at their word! If others have comments that might contribute to such a document (and a title for it, e.g. “How college and high school teachers in the Modern Language Association approach the Common Core standard of “Text Complexity,” please post them to this site! Here is the link to Professor Miller’s comment: http://mla.hcommons.org/?get_group_doc=222/1408758503-CommentfromHillisMillerforpostingonMLACommons.pdf
23 August 2014 at 9:23 am #5400
- This reply was modified 5 years, 11 months ago by Katina Rogers. Reason: Fixed broken link and typo at author's request
I believe the link to Hillis’ comment in Margie’s most recent post may be truncated (and hence not work properly). Members of this group can reach Hillis’ comment by going to the “files” area of this group, where the PDF resides at the top of the list. I am also inserting a link to the PDF of Hillis’ comment here.
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